News Release

New research reveals an advanced form of meditation impacts the brain and is linked to aspects of well-being

Results from a new neuroimaging study led by researchers at could be used to enhance wellbeing and inform interventions for mental health conditions

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Massachusetts General Hospital

Key Takeaways

  • Neuroimaging in an adept meditator revealed rich patterns of brain activity in specific cortical, subcortical, brainstem, and cerebellar regions associated with an advanced practice of meditation called jhana
  • Investigators observed correlations between brain activity during jhana and qualities such as attention, joy, mental ease, equanimity, and formlessnes

BOSTON – Using advanced brain scanning technology, a team led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a founding member of Mass General Brigham (MGB), recently revealed insights into what happens in the brain during an advanced form of meditation called jhana.

By uncovering distinct patterns of activity in different regions of the brain during jhana, the research suggests exciting possibilities for innovative therapies merging ancient meditation practices with modern neuroscience to improve well-being.

For the recent study published in Cerebral Cortex, scientists conducted a form of ultra-high field functional magnetic resonance imaging on a volunteer who was an adept meditator with more than 25 years of meditation experience. Imaging data were collected during 27 sessions of jhana over 5 consecutive days.

The advanced absorptive meditation practice known as jhana is linked to self-transcendence, which is sometimes called ego-dissolution or insight into “no self,” and also attentional capacities and internally-generated joy and equanimity—qualities that are important for well-being and often disrupted in various psychiatric disorders.

“This study used an ultra-high field strength 7T magnetic resonance imaging system for enhanced brain mapping precision that has never been used in any study of meditation, let alone advanced meditation. This technology enabled us to evaluate the activity, with high precision, of the cortex, subcortex, brainstem, and cerebellum during a form of advanced concentration meditation known as jhana,” says senior author Matthew D. Sacchet, Ph.D., the director of the Meditation Research Program and an assistant professor of Psychiatry at MGH and Harvard Medical School.

“This allowed us to gain insights into the overall functioning of the whole brain in the context of jhana meditation, including the rarely studied brainstem and cerebellum.”

Sacchet and his colleagues also observed correlations between brain activity during jhana and attention, jhanic qualities (including joy, mental ease, equanimity and formlessness), and self-perception.

“This research is foundational for the development of cutting-edge interventions for supporting well-being and treating mental health conditions. These interventions could involve developing novel meditation-based therapies grounded in advanced meditation, such as jhana, which have received extremely limited attention from science,” says Sacchet.

“Our neuroscientific insights may directly inform neurotechnology including neurofeedback and brain stimulation that may be applied to target specific brain systems implicated in advanced meditation. Our work holds significant and untapped promises in alleviating suffering and promoting human flourishing.”

Sacchet and his team intend to develop an increasingly comprehensive science of advanced meditation through the development of a research center at MGH and HMS focused on this work. The group is currently collecting brain imaging data from additional meditators and is exploring additional methods to understand jhana and other forms of advanced meditation.

Additional authors include Winson F.Z. Yang, Avijit Chowdhury, Marta Bianciardi, Remko van Lutterveld, and Terje Sparby.

This research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, Dimension Giving Fund, Ad Astra Chandaria Foundation, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, BIAL Foundation, and individual donors.

About the Massachusetts General Hospital

Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with annual research operations of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 9,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In July 2022, Mass General was named #8 in the U.S. News & World Report list of "America’s Best Hospitals." MGH is a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system.

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